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Vietnamese Caramel Syrup Disaster!

I attempted to make Vietnamese caramel syrup (for use in savory dishes) from a recipe in a Vietnamese cookbook, and it was a total disaster. Hopefully someone can explain what happened and how to do it right.

The recipe says to put 1/4 cup of water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil without stirring over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer 10-15 minutes, until the mixture is a deep brown and the bubbles become sluggish.

Well, after 10-15 minutes the mixture was nowhere near brown. Maybe a slight golden tinge, but no more. So I kept simmering. After maybe 20 minutes, small clumps of crystals began to form, and at 25 minutes, the entire bubbling surface of the mixture was covered with crystallized clumps (still nowhere near a caramel brown color).

I figured I should just procede with the recipe as instructed, removing the pan from the heat and slowly pouring in 1/4 cup hot water, then returning to the heat and stirring constantly over med-high heat until the caramel is dissolved.

That's what the recipe said, anyway. I whisked for a few minutes as the mixture thickened up considerably, although the clumps of crystals never really fully dissolved. After five minutes or so, I added one teaspoon lemon juice (as instructed by the recipe) and took the pan off the heat to cool.

Within a couple minutes, the entire mixture had seized up into a rock-hard block in the bottom of the saucepan that I had to pry out using a metal spatula as a chisel.

Any ideas on what happened and how to do it right next time?

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  1. A few things come to mind: were you using pure cane sugar? did you use a thick, heav-bottomed pot? I have good luck making caramel sauces in a thick-bottomed allclad saucepan, as hot sugar syrup will definitely increase in volume quite a bit and can quicky overwhelm a skillet. I'd put the water & sugar together over low heat until dissolved, then increase the heat to medium. Don't stir--stirring promotes granulation/crystallization. Be patient and it will begin to brown, but it can quickly go from brown to black, so don't wander away from the stove or answer the phone, etc.

    Definitely don't add additional water if the syrup hasn't caramelized. And if you think it's brown enough, you can quickly stop the cooking by putting the hot pot into a few inches of cold water in the sink.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Hungry Celeste

      I was using normal granulated white sugar. I used a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan. I didn't stir at all, although I did occasionally swirl the pan to dissolve the sugar clinging to the sides as directed by the recipe. Maybe that was the mistake?

      1. re: OakTownHound

        If your bag of sugar does not say Pure Cane Sugar or 100% Cane Sugar then it is beet sugar and will not produce good caramel. I make caramel in a cast iron skillet and use no water in it at all, just steady heat and occasionally swirling the pan. The only time I've had a caramel disaster was when I was using the store brand sugar which looks like pure cane but is not. What a mess. I'lll never buy it again.

        1. re: Candy

          "I make caramel in a cast iron skillet"

          I use a pan with a stainless interior so I can watch the color develop. How do you know when the color's right, with black cast iron? Do you go by temperature?

          1. re: Professor Salt

            Actually you can see it change. It was the way I did it over 30 years ago and did not want to take a chance with my wedding stainless. My thinking was the cast iron was dark so if any sugar burned on it would not be the mess it would be in stainless. I was also not taking into consideration that I could boil out any burned on sugar. I still have that skillet and it produces great caramel for me. It is heavy and heats evenly and i've never had a caramel problem except the aforementioned mess made with beet sugar. That was awful, it glued everyone's forks to their plates. I was really embarassed.

        2. re: OakTownHound

          Make sure all of the sugar crystals are dissolved before heating. When intact sugar crystals are introduced to dissolved sugar, you get clumps.

          Here's my method: Rinse out pan. Put water in the bottom, pour sugar in center. Use your finger to make sure all of the sugar gets wet, then cook over high heat. Do not touch, move, agitate, stir, swirl, etc. until the sugar starts to take on color. Once caramelization begins, it is safe to swirl the pan to get even color. Any utensils you use to stir the caramel must be clean and dry.

          1. re: OakTownHound

            That is EXACTLY what happens when I try to make caramel via the "wet method". EXACTLY. Thanks for describing it so well. It does not matter that I use pure cane sugar, nor that I have a heavy bottom pan, nor that I do not stir, nor that I brush down the sides with a clean brush. Part of what makes it so frustrating is that it takes so LONG for this disaster to occur.

            Try putting a tight lid on the pan for several minutes. This should cause steam that will melt sugar crystals clinging to the side of the pan. I have on occasion had success with this method, though it is not fool proof.

            If I only need a small quantity of caramel, I make it by the dry method. Just dump some sugar in the bottom of the pan, not too deep (1/8-1/4 inch), watch it closely, swirl gently when it starts to darken.

            Good Luck, if you are caramel-cursed like I am, you'll need it.

        3. The quick and easy answer to your problem is to add 1 T of honey, corn syrup, or blackstrap to your sugar. Table sugar is so well refined these days, it's nearly 100% sucrose (a fructose:glucose dimer), which tends to recrystalize instead of supersaturate when you cook it down. Adding a chemically different sugar, glucose, will help to prevent crystalization. You can also add a touch of acid, lemon juice or cream of tartar, to the mix, as it will cause the sucrose to break down into its substiuent sugars.

          1. also you can try melting the sugar without water at all. that always works a lot easier for me. don't stir at all either, leave it alone and don't even swirl it until it's mostly all melted and getting dark.

            1. You have to brush down the sides of the pan with water. If the mixture has come to a boil and you swirl the pan and a stray sugar crystle falls in, the mixture will sieze. It's ok to stir before the caramel has boiled but once it does, make no sugar crystals at all make it in. Like foodmuse had said, it's best to add a tablespoon of corn syrup that way you have little chance of siezing.

              1. My suggestion: make sure yer pot is totally clean. That itty bitty speck of dirt is enough to cause chryslization of the whole.